I picked up Eva Ibbotson’s book Journey to the River Sea after seeing a snapshot of a young woman reading it featured on the blog Underground New York Public Library. Intrigued, I checked our catalogue and found several of Ibbotson’s books in both the children’s and adult departments. Eva Ibbotson was an Austrian-born British novelist whose books tend to be set in the turn of the century England or Vienna and feature characters who are orphans, ballerinas or governesses. If you share my taste, you pretty much already know that you’ll like her books.
Journey to the River Sea takes place in 1910 and tells the story 13-year-old Maia’s trip by boat from London to the Amazon with her new governess Miss Minton. Minton seems severe at first, with a face “like a nutcracker,” but we (and Maia) soon realize that she’s a gem. They recognize their kinship when they’re boarding the ship and Maia asks “was it books?” that made Minty’s trunk so heavy (it was, and Maia was glad). It is Minty who later declares “children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.”
She shares Maia’s hopes that their new family in Brazil (cousins of Maia’s deceased parents) will be big-hearted and welcoming, excited to show them everything they’ve imagined discovering in the Amazon – adorable screeching howler monkeys and funny anteaters, decadent fruits and nuts, exotic orchids blooming in the humid jungle. Instead they find themselves shut up in a stuffy house that wishes it were still in England – the awful tinned food and the antiseptic air are painted in stark contrast to their vivid imaginings. The family is openly contemptuous to Maia and Minty, it’s clear that they wish to deprive them of pleasure while using Maia’s allowance to order fancy dresses and new-fangled bug zappers.
Ibbotson balances out the bad characters with a few more good eggs. We meet two boys who are Maia’s age – a homesick child actor she met on the ship, and a half-native boy who shows her the ways of the jungle. Both are instrumental to a plot point that becomes a test of Maia’s character and the climax of the story. We also meet many benevolent native folks, a kind wealthy Russian family, and a chivalrous naturalist. Through the characters, the book champions a love of the natural world and native cultures, and denounces greed and colonialism.
My favourite part of this book was how well Ibbotson evokes the atmospheric setting. Apparently, after learning about the city of Manaus from a friend, she spent years researching the place where rubber barons “became so rich that they could wash their carriage horses in champagne… yet all the time the untamed jungle was on the doorstep, waiting to take over if they failed.”
Maia learns that “people make their own worlds,” and in the end she chooses the one she loves best.
-Lise, Children’s staff